Saturday, August 11, 2012

Review: Colonel Moseley reviews "Rock and Chips" from 29.1.2010

This piece is taken from my reviewblog in 2010
Once upon a time in Peckham - well actually in the 1987 Only Fools and Horses Christmas special, entitled "The Frog's Legacy" - first mention was made on British airwaves of a certain Freddie Robdal.

Sixteen ratings-busting years later, the 2003 OF&H Yuletide "Sleepless in Peckham," was intended to be the final instalment of what had by then become a national institution. During this episode Rodney Trotter is prompted to work out his own paternity on discovering a photograph of Freddie on the legendary Jolly Boys coach outing to Margate in 1960.

Such was the success over decades of OF&H, that it is hardly surprising that a prequel was mooted. Depending on the degree of one's cynicism, this would amount to the exploitative milking of an exhausted cash cow best put out of its misery or the welcome return of an entertaining old friend giving a new perspective on some wonderful characters.

This dichotomy together with generally harsh appraisals by the professional critics of the OF&H prequel set in 1960 "Rock and Chips" written by John Sullivan prompted me to write this.

The press consensus appeared negative with dismissive one liners such as "an ocean going stinker" and "'The History Boys' written by Chas and Dave". It was summarily rejected as an "old Arthur Askey movie", "immeasurably long and plodding"," lazy", "cynical" and even "misbegotten."

It struck me that this degree of aphoristic spleen might say as much about our current critical climate as about the piece itself. Some of the press criticism seems to come from the same school as the more attention-seeking judgements from the panels on the ballroom dancing and ice skating littering peak hours on TV.

Ageing retired pros vie with each other for memorable soundbites on the performances of celebrity contestants. Coverage is guaranteed by the most negative appraisal and a species of disdainfully vituperative panel queens has evolved. The barbed apercus of panto bad-guy ugly sisters are usually balanced by a kinder and avuncular figure expressing a gentler view - laced with occasional bile to keep the audience on its toes.

Whatever the dynamic, judges and critics seem to find it easier to cope in a demanding environment by dishing out a good kicking from time to time. Just as it always was with the most formidable bullies in the school playground, victims are ridiculed as well as thumped.

So, did "Rock and Chips" deserve its mauling?

Their main gripe seemed to be the credibility of the central character Freddie "the Frog" Robdal played by Nicholas Lyndhurst. This career criminal had an established past as a trained diver, safe-cracker and art specialist. He was also the father of the affable Rodney and must have possessed sufficient attraction to charm and woo Rodney's mother, Joan.

For me the construction of character and the performance by Nicholas Lyndhurst more than passed muster. Debonair Freddie was tall and impressive in his well-cut suits and flash motor car. He was laconic, slightly diffident and attuned to the better things in life.

His immediate attraction to Joan was convincing, but he was undeniably on-the-make and a crook underneath the cultured veneer. Freddie was only slightly menacing but anything more unpleasant would have been implausible from Rodney's father and Joan's lover.

The performances by the other principals were also impeccable - notably Kellie Bright as Joan Trotter. She conveyed a sassy yet vulnerable quality that was charming and convincing. The stereotype of the pneumatic bottle-blond tottering down the street in short skirt, beehive and stilettos to the universal disapproval of gossipping neighbours may have been cliched, but here it was integral to the plot and character and not a flaw.

Other key characters such as Phil Daniel's Grandad and James Buckley's Del were convincingly played. Care was taken to achieve accuracy in mindset throughout. At 15, Del was hormonal and ducking and diving, but already drawing the line at drugs.

The youthful Boycie, Slater, Trigger and Denzil were also presented faithfully as blue print versions of the men they turned out to be. The Jolly Boys outing to Margate conveyed the good natured spirit and warmth of what was after all, a community.

The student of authenticity would have appreciated the appearance of Reenie Turpin and Jumbo Mills who appeared in the 1986 OF&H "Who Wants to be a Millionaire" on his return from Australia with memories of selling iffy gear outside the Nags Head. It was appropriate that in 1960 he and Del were already shifting hooky carpets from the back of a van.

The second issue causing most critical distaste appeared to be the sense of period and nostalgia quotient. For me the rather sombre lighting and Play For Today feel worked. People tend to forget that life in 1960 was closer to austerity than the swinging sixties. It wasn't all Tommy Steele flashing his teeth and singing "Little White Bull" in sparkly chrome coffee bars up West. Real life was often closer to the grime of 10 Rillington Place lit by a single 40 watt bulb.

I also had no problem with the shorthand of fixing period with the showing of "Psycho" at the local cinema. Similarly the school scenes with the psychotic games teacher and alienated teenagers theoretically forced to stay on but actually excess to requirements, were truthful and funny.

Above all, this production used music well to give a convincing sense of time and place. A woman like Joan could well have lived her life to the accompaniment of her records and a dockland home would have received early copies of American disks - as was the case in Liverpool.

For me the shabby down-at-heel feel of this area in 1960 worked; the monochrome titles, kitchen sink interiors, cars, clothes, decor, lighting and music were apt and evocative.

The other major criticism of the production appeared to be its humour. It's difficult to write about what could be called "comedic values" without appearing pompous, but here goes...

The critics panned some of the jokes such as Freddie's question to Joan, "Have you ever been to the National?" and her reply, "No, but I've been to the Derby once."

Obviously humour is a personal and subjective and reviewers are entitled to their view. There is however an alternative one. There is a long thread of very British humour that is not crude, crass or unkind that is our very own. It is amazingly diverse and combines the madcap, silly and often vulgar in a thread that runs through artists as different as Rob Wilton, Carry On, Joyce Grenfell, Les Dawson, Victoria Wood and the better early material of Benny Hill.

It is the kind of indigenous humour that appreciates that to the British some words are funny in themselves - take "gusset" for example. Admittedly, Robert Davies repressed cinema manager may not have been John Sullivan's finest creation, but the running gag in the hospital waiting room centred on the pronunciation of Joan's assumed surname of "Ming" was funny.

Like Olive and Arthur in "On the Buses" or Mel's falsetto rendition of "Lonely Girl" in "Benidorm", it's a British thing. It either floats your boat and you laugh until you cry or it doesn't. Fortunately for Mr Sullivan, over the years most of us have "got" most of his jokes from crashing chandeliers and falling through bars to Trigger's non sequiturs and Del's malapropisms. Perhaps it doesn't now play so well in the lofts of cutting-edge Hoxton. Sadly, maybe many of the current generation of critics are on a different wavelength and do not get it. Shame really.
I'm still not sure that "Rock and Chips" would justify a series. I did however thoroughly enjoy it as a one-off drama-comedy and was intrigued by its darker quality. The central performances by Nicholas Lyndhust and Kellie Bright were exceptional. The production had integrity and did justice to its period, story-line and characters.

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